Fire district mergers unlikely in near future
SUMMIT COUNTY – There is mumbling in the valley about the possibility of fire district mergers since Red, White and Blue Fire Chief John Moles announced his retirement last week.
Lake Dillon Fire District Chief Francis Winston said major changes in a department’s hierarchy, such as a chief retiring, often inspire discussion about changes people would like to see.
“It’s an opportunity for everyone to take a look and see whether it fits,” he said. “You have your political arena, the needs of the department – you also have the community. What do they want? We’re not here to create kingdoms; we’re here to provide for the community.”
If Summit County’s four fire district boards do debate merging under one umbrella, the road to consolidation won’t be easy, fire officials say.
“It’s in the Lake Dillon mission statement to seek out cooperative venues with other governmental entities,” said Jeff Berino, Lake Dillon Fire District assistant chief. “It is our board’s intent to explore possibilities, to be receptive toward any consolidation or intergovernmental agreement that can make resources more efficient.”
Some changes have been made – and some have even lasted. (See timeline.)
Winston remembers early debates.
“In 1987, we tried to force a consolidation,” he said. “It was a huge amount of work to get it to election, and we lost because people had time to shoot holes in it. If there’s an interest now, fine. If not, we’re all still doing a pretty good job.”
“(Department mergers have) been proven to be fiscally prudent – we’ve shown by our track record that it has,” Berino said. “We did raise our mill levy, but that enabled us to do programs we could never have done before.”
Those programs include staffing two stations full-time, developing a resident program, saving money through bulk purchases, adding on to the Frisco and Dillon stations and obtaining employee housing in Dillon Valley.
“Instead of four fire chiefs, we have one,” Berino said. “Instead of four fire marshals, we have one. People can specialize in different areas and not wear 18 different hats.”
Earlier this year, Lake Dillon and Snake River fire districts created a shared community service bureau that addresses fire prevention and education. And Lake Dillon and Red, White and Blue share a training bureau.
“Was it a smooth ride? Absolutely not,” Berino said. “The big issues were relatively easy – what you’re going to call yourself, who goes in what station. It’s the little things – what color the fire trucks are going to be, what the patch is going to look like – that are problematic. Everyone wants to keep their own culture. With time, people realized it was the right thing.”
Politics and egos also get in the way.
“It’s a comfort level, too, although we’re more alike than not,” Berino said. “The hardest part is having the patience to let the different organizations blend into one, to let people see it can work. Was it the right thing to do in Lake Dillon’s case? It has been a success story.”
Red, White and Blue interim chief Gary Green said he doesn’t know what might happen until the search for a new chief is over. But Copper Mountain Chief Scott Randolph said his board prefers being its own district.
“It got to the point my budget could not afford the cost to do it,” Randolph said of the department’s participation in the community services bureau. “If we didn’t do it, it allowed me to move my group staffing from three on a 24-hour shift to four. And we’re still not where we need to be.”
He’s not completely opposed to sharing resources, however.
“In some ways there are big advantages,” Randolph said. “But I don’t think we’re close yet. When it gets right down to your job, operations at Copper Mountain is operations at Copper Mountain, not operations at Breckenridge. My board likes to have the ability to do what it feels necessary to cover the district it’s in. We (different departments and districts) work so well together already, unless I can see a really good economic reason for coming together, I don’t think my department or board is interested. We’re together as we need to be.”
Indeed, all of Summit County’s fire departments work together under mutual-aid agreements. Those enable a department to request assistance from neighboring departments, say, in mass-casualty incidents, such as a pileup on the interstate, or a large fire, such as the conflagration that burned a building under construction on Airport Road and threatened Peak 7 in the late 1990s.
“The community service bureau has been positive; it’s worked very well,” said Dave Parmley, chief of the Snake River district. “But merging is a much bigger step in terms of what’s required. It needs to be given a thorough examination. Bigger is not always better. And the Snake River Basin is one of the only forms of true local government out here. That’s something a lot of the community appreciates.”
– Pre-1980s: Dillon, Dillon Valley, Snake River, Red, White and Blue (RWB), Frisco and Copper Mountain are all separate districts
– Early 1980s: proposal to make a countywide department dies
– 1982: Summit Fire Authority formed to combine efforts and save money
– 1987: Dillon Fire Protection Board OKs resolution to merge Dillon, Snake River, Silverthorne and Dillon Valley into one district; Snake River opts out; Proposal goes to election and fails by three votes in Silverthorne
– 1988: Copper Mountain signs agreement with Frisco for joint responses
– 1989: Dillon and Dillon Valley sign agreement for joint responses
– 1990: Copper Mountain opts out of agreement with Frisco
– 1993: Lake Dillon Fire Authority formed with Dillon, Dillon Valley and Silverthorne
– 1995: Frisco joins Lake Dillon Fire Authority
– 1998: Formal consolidation of Frisco, Dillon, Dillon Valley and Silverthorne into Lake Dillon Fire Protection District
– 1998: Voters overwhelmingly approve disbanding fire authority and making it a fire protection district with taxing power
– 1999: Snake River, Lake Dillon Fire and Copper Mountain merge fire prevention bureaus into a community service bureau
– 2002: Copper Mountain opts out of community service bureau
– 2003: Lake Dillon and Red, White and Blue consolidate training bureaus; RWB provides management of High Country Training Center in Frisco
– Today: Silverthorne, Dillon, Dillon Valley and Frisco Fire departments are in the Lake Dillon Fire Protection District; RWB, Snake River and Copper Mountain are in their own districts
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